A judge has said that claims for compensation by those affected by the News of the World phone-hacking scandal should not be delayed by the ongoing criminal investigation.
Mr Justice Vos today told London’s High Court: “I am extremely unattracted to the idea of putting back the determination of these civil cases pending criminal proceedings which have not yet even resulted in charges.”
The police inquiry could take a very long time while the civil cases could be ready for trial by the end of this year, he told a courtroom packed with media, lawyers for about 20 claimants, and one alleged victim – former MP George Galloway.
Directing that documents relating to the civil proceedings should not be filed with the court in the usual way or open to inspection, the judge said it was of fundamental importance to avoid prejudice to the criminal proceedings.
He said it would be best to limit the civil action by having four test cases – possibly actress Sienna Miller, interior designer Kelly Hoppen, commentator Andy Gray and sports agent Sky Andrew – as these were well-advanced and covered a range of issues and levels of damage.
The main issue was not whether there was a conspiracy, which News Group denied, admitting only isolated incidents, but about whether there was interception, how much, what was done with the information and what damage was suffered.
The judge said: “Otherwise we will be going on forever. Some people may want to but I don’t.”
He added: “At the bottom of all this is a claim for damages and and the most important thing for the claimants is to have a guide as to what damages they may be entitled.”
Today’s day-long hearing follows a series of recent rulings over the disclosure of information by the Metropolitan Police and Vodafone relating to material forfeited by private detective Glenn Mulcaire who, with News of the World reporter Clive Goodman, was jailed over royal phone taps in 2007, and data from other mobile phone users.
At the end of last week, eight claimants, including Ms Miller and former culture secretary Tessa Jowell, received apologies from the newspaper, but the actress’s lawyers said she was awaiting disclosure and would then consider her next steps.
News International has written to another nine claimants asking for further evidence that their voicemails had been intercepted so a decision can be made on whether they too are entitled to an apology and compensation.
An estimated £20 million has been set aside for payouts.
Last week, detectives investigating the allegations arrested the paper’s chief reporter and its former head of news.
Neville Thurlbeck, 50, and Ian Edmondson, 42, were questioned by Scotland Yard detectives when they voluntarily attended separate police stations in south-west London.
Yesterday, senior reporter James Weatherup became the third journalist from the newspaper to be questioned. He was released on bail until September.
During the hearing, the judge was told that around 40 police officers were involved in indexing a 9,200-page document, referred to as the “Mulcaire archive”, to work out the number of potential claimants.
Michael Silverleaf QC, for News Group, when standing up to address the judge, said: “I start by making it quite clear that my clients wish to apologise unreservedly to anyone who was compromised as a result of Mulcaire’s activities.”
He said they wished appropriately to compensate those “who have suffered” and wanted the issue of compensation dealt with as efficiently and fairly as possible.
Mr Justice Vos said the most effective way of dealing with the case was for there to be a trial of the “generic issues that arise between the parties”, based on four test cases.
His objective was to “achieve a resolution of all these cases in the shortest possible time at the minimum possible cost”, he said.
For the test cases it would be useful to have claimants from different “walks of life” – from the worlds of sport, politics and entertainment.
Mulcaire’s counsel, Alexandra Marzec, told the judge that she should make his stance clear and went on: “The admissions which have been made by News Group in the past week are made solely on behalf of News Group and Mr Mulcaire does not admit doing anything and does not associate himself with those admissions.
“He takes that position to protect himself in any criminal proceedings which may take place in the future.”
The judge said the next case management conference would be on 20 May when he will consider an application for disclosure by the Metropolitan Police of all of Mulcaire’s notebooks.
He added that all proceedings would be held in public because of the great public interest but that he would listen carefully to any application by the police for specific matters to be heard in private.
It is understood that actor Jude Law will also be launching legal action against the News of the World.
He was in a relationship with Ms Miller between 2003 and 2005 and then again from 2009 before they split for the second time earlier this year.
Lawyers acting for him went to the High Court last month to get more information in support of a potential claim.
Mr Justice Vos granted an application ordering the Metropolitan Police to disclose information which may relate to interception of the actor’s private voicemail.
The judge heard that police consented to the order covering material forfeited by Mulcaire.